As a boy, I remember wondering why so many people liked to rush to Church to get ashes smudged on their foreheads. Frankly, I had some revulsion at the idea. I didn’t like it at all and would secretly rub them off when no one was looking. Today, though I’ll admit I still don’t like it too much, I behave myself and don’t rub them off!
I pray that this doesn’t seem impious, but I still marvel at how many people pack into the church to get ashes on their foreheads. Sadder still, some who come don’t seem to want Holy Communion nearly as much. In fact, in some of the parishes where I served in the past, significant numbers walked out the door after receiving ashes and did not even stay for Communion.
Of course most people who come to Mass are faithful and have their priorities straight, but it still interests me how large the numbers are for something that seems to me so unappealing and challenging.
Indeed, the sign of ashes is quite challenging if understand what it really means. We are saying some pretty powerful stuff and making some extensive promises of a sort.
What do ashes signify? Perhaps a brief tour of Scripture is in order:
Humility – Job said, “You [Oh Lord] asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my counsel without knowledge?’ Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know. You said, ‘Listen now, and I will speak; I will question you, and you shall answer me.’ My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes” (Job 42:3-6).
Notice that Job does not merely repent in a general sense. Rather, having encountered God, he realizes that God is God, and that he, Jacob, is a creature, mere dust and ashes in the presence of God, who is being itself, who is all in all. Yes, Jacob is a son in the presence of a Father; he is not God’s equal that he might question Him or put Him on trial.
Hence in this case the ashes represent not only repentance but humility as well. The Church’s liturgy echoes this theme of humility in quoting Gen 3:19: “Remember, you are dust and unto dust you shall return” as the ashes are placed on the individual’s forehead.
Read more at Archdiocese of Washington.